I am a great admirer of a blog named “Breath of the Beast,” written by a gentleman who calls himself Yaacov ben Moshe. You should spend time with him. He recently called our attention to a long-lost essay by Mark Twain entitled “The privilege of the grave” that deals with two big issues that will become more urgently important in Trump’s second two years: freedom of speech, and the behavior of crowds.
Twain wrote that while we technically have freedom of speech at all times, mostly we only speak our minds from the grave. While we live, it’s too big a risk to say what we really believe because of the social cost of speaking out. “…oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.” So we keep our true feelings to ourselves and feign agreement with our friends and comrades.
Twain used his own case as an example. As Ben Moshe puts it:
He sheepishly admits that thirty years before the Civil War, he and most other Americans actually accepted the existence of slavery. It was, “… not because we wanted to, for we did not, but we wanted to be in the swim. It is plainly a law of nature, and we obeyed it.” “In the swim,” (today we might say, “to be mainstream”) he explained, is the main motive for party and ideological identification.
In Twain’s view, our party (or ideological) loyalties are not so much due to our having thought through the meaning and implications of political doctrines, as they are to our desire to be a member of the most attractive crowd. This means that our political behavior, whether demonstrating, speaking or writing, is not always a reliable guide to our real convictions. It may instead be an indication of which crowd we’ve joined, and are reluctant to openly abandon.
“When a man has joined a party, he is likely to stay in it. If he change his opinion—his feeling, I mean, his sentiment—he is likely to stay, anyway; his friends are of that party, and he will keep his altered sentiment to himself, and talk the privately discarded one. On those terms he can exercise his American privilege of free speech, but not on any others. These unfortunates are in both parties, but in what proportions we cannot guess. Therefore we never know which party was really in the majority at an election.”
Hence the title of Twain’s essay. He left it behind, to appear a century or so after his death. He confessed his failure to oppose slavery, insisting he didn’t favor it. He wouldn’t leave “the swim,” because that would be too painful. So although he technically had the freedom to speak his true convictions, he could really only do that once he’d died.
For me, this is an important lesson for historians. Only the historians can collect the testimony of the dead. Pollsters and journalists can’t do that. The historians—at least the very good ones—get to collect testimony from the grave, and also to measure the effect of crowds on man’s public behavior.
As usual, the “truth” is hard to come by. Which is why we’re well advised to be very skeptical about trying to read men’s minds. Maybe even our own.